The Guns of The South
Harry Turtledove’s classic alternate history novel started when another author complained to him that the cover art on one of her books was as anachronistic as “Robert E. Lee holding an Uzi.” After that, writing a book about South African time travelers changing the fate of the American Civil War via a huge quantity of AK-47s was in order.
Guns of the South is a frustrating book, because it manages to be good, bad, and unnerving at the same time. The good part of the book is in its action and use of viewpoint characters. It has only two, Lee himself and low-ranking soldier Nathan Caudell, and the perspectives they can apply are well taken advantage of. As for the action, it keeps it well-written even when one side has muzzleloaders and the other AKs-and that’s not always the case.
The bad part is mainly in its ultimate antagonists, the time travelers themselves. These rank in my eyes as some of the worst villains I’ve ever seen in fiction. Besides the moral issues which I’ll discuss in a bit, they’re ultimately dumb and mysteriously stop taking advantage of their high technology and training at exactly the moment it’s convenient for the plot.
The unsettling part is that Guns of South has a disturbing feel of Confederate apologism to it. I think it’s just the result of unintended consequences, but still. Make Confederate protagonists who a modern audience will find relatable and sympathetic, and there’s going to be some (no pun intended) whitewashing. The two biggest problems are the Confederately ultimately phasing out slavery without much protest and the behavior of the time travelers. Said time travelers are stupidly and cartoonishly racist in ways that exist to make the CSA look better in comparison. It’s not only creepy, it’s lazy and annoying-and makes them even worse as antagonists.
This is still readable and it’s still one of Turtledove’s better books, lacking the bloat a lot of his later novels have. It’s just weighed down by its terrible villains.